Illustrated by: Capu Toons
I meet up with one G. Gichore, who has been smoking for 25 years, and who, for today, shadows as my Master. My Smoking Shaolin. He is a smoking virtuoso, and he tells me how back in the day smoking was the thing. It was the isht. His shtick? Sportsman sticks—which he aptly calls the Diesel of cigarettes, and I can’t stop laughing.
You are probably wondering, so what is the Petrol of cigs? Well, that honour is bestowed on the Dunhills and Embassies and Marlboros of this world. Gichore hits, on average, 15 sticks a day. 15! I shudder. Yes, and that’s on a slow day, he says. Depending on the pressure, it gets higher, he adds. See? Diesel.
Back in Gichore’s heyday, smoking was to men what chapati is to me. Those days, a leather jacket, shaggy hair and a stick between your lips could get you any lass, or so they say. Smoking was de rigueur, it was cool. Now it’s just rash. Ghetto. Passé.
Everyone wants to be cool…
Every generation has its gimmick. My generation is smoking weed, which, if my mom is reading this, I want her to know I’ve not smoked weed. Yet. But even though weed is hastily going out of style, there is a new kid on the block. Yeah, it’s called vaping. It’s for the cool kids—but this story is not about cool kids. Let’s get back to cigs, cool? Cool.
He, Gichore, fatuously tells me he wants to stop though. He has boys he is raising, who want to imitate him, who want to be like him, to be him. Boys and their fathers, huh? I want to tell him that they’ll still smoke, if they want to, with or without his express approval. But I don’t, as I can see his eyes squint with determination. Willpower alone may do the magic. His voice mellows, and I can tell we are about to go into uncharted territory. I’m not good at handling emotions so I reroute him back to the cigs. Toughen up, soldier!
We don’t have all day, and my lungs are compressing in anxiety.
My amateur-ish attempt at being cool…
280/= Two eighty shillings. Two hundred and eighty bob. That’s how much pocket damage a packet of Dunhill cigs cost me. Shake shake. Krrrrrshhaa. Ssssss. Sssssss. Cough. Sneeze. Wheeze. As the fumes hit my mouth, my tongue tasting like burnt meat, I start coughing even before I inhale the fumes. I exaggerate the situation until the cig goes out. Round Two. Matchstick firmly in hand. I cusp the stick between my lips, twitching my eyes as the flame strikes and we approach critical mass. In my head, Nviiri’s aptly named jam is on loop: Pombe Sigara.
I am that guy… inside my head…
I have never been turned on by placing sticks between my mouth but I’m not gonna lie—it used to look cool to me. I’ve always been fascinated by how obvious smoking a cig can make you oblivious. I’ve always wanted to smoke a cig, just as I’ve always wanted to wear those audacious fedora hats, a long mustard trench coat and a fake-ass pencil moustache that screams ‘Mafia Don’. Once I pull off the look, I’d imagine I’d be waiting for someone, someone who wants something illegal, someone like you, someone who I will ask to meet me at the corner of City Hall Way, where criminals and crooks patrol the crevices.
Anyway, my victim will come, see me puffing and approach?
Ash? They will ask. Who wants to know? I say. I don’t wait for them to reply. Mafia Dons work on a tight schedule and have no time for maswali mingi. Do you have the package? They show me the money. I take two puffs, blowing rings in the air. They want to talk but I blow another cloud of smoke. Then I hand them a brown envelope containing an appointment letter from a shadow boxing company. I puff again, then disappear into the night like the Dark Knight, after, quite literally, blowing smoke up my victim’s ass.
These are the scenes I play in my head when I think of myself smoking. Badass!
Then I used writing as an excuse…
Look, being a writer is fun. You can use it as an excuse to do almost anything. You see, some people like to imagine things. Me, I like to live it. So today I had the perfect excuse—what would placing a cig between my mouth do? Would it make me cough, or would it make me cool? But remember, I’m doing it for the culture, for work. If anyone asks, I’d reply, it’s an experiment. Just like one may watch porn for research. It’s absurd.
I’m feeling illegal, like some thug. That’s how much of an effect ciggies have on me.
Don’t do it, son…
There’s a scene in Tom Chiarella’s Esquire profile of Morgan Freeman, where Morgan’s son, Alfonso, is complaining that he has never seen the need to do any drugs, and Morgan reproaches him. “What I see,” Morgan Freeman says, “is that you want to be an actor but you don’t test your limits very well. You don’t get to the edges of things. You don’t push back.” It’s a weird moment, a father arguing a self-congratulatory truism with the son who uttered it. Freeman is using Alfonso’s story to gain traction on advice he clearly feels is long overdue. This is some serious reverse Magical Negro isht going on here.
Freeman’s ministering to his own.
And Freeman isn’t talking about drug use or drinking. He’s not advocating anything except working harder when you’re young. He’s talking about shrinking. It’s a very precise life lesson. He’s warning his son about making his life small before it needs to be.
The guff will always knock you down…
I like to compare smoking with boxing—you throw a punch, it has you on the ropes, you swing a left hook, you get knocked out. Because a man’s role models can often open a window into his own motivations, I think of myself as an unexplored Muhammad Ali, boxing’s broken prince and my personal memento effigy, whose life I model own against. “I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail.” Sure, it’s just smoking. But if Muhammad Ali could call himself boxing’s pretty boy, I sure as hell can call myself smoking’s hot boy, inside my head…
The distaste and disdain…
Cigs may seem sexy. However, I can’t date a smoker because I have enough chimneys in my house, despite craving the thrill of the high. Oh, it’s not what they advertised in Hollywood. After my initial puffs, my tongue felt tasteless, like a plumber’s wet handkerchief. In my mind, I had expected that after the puff, I’d hear something, something like horns, something like Angel Gabriel blowing the trumpets. That I’d somehow see the light. I was hoping someone would look at me as I smoked wearing my mustard trench coat, and say that boy is smoking hot. I was clearly hallucinating.
Thing is, all those Marlboro ads had me believing lighting a cigarette is drug-haven Camelot. That just because cowboys smoked it, it is ipso facto true.
I raised my fingers, put the stick in my mouth, inhaled two lungfuls, and felt a sudden rush. I coughed and coughed and coughed. Was it meant to be this hard?
Some of you are probably saying: Fool, what did you expect?
And then I learnt something, that the first rule of smoking is don’t smoke in the house. And by Jove, never smoke inside your own house. Those fumes stick on stuff. They arrest them. It’s akin to adding a banana to a smoothie. Whenever you are making an apple or orange or guac smoothie, and you add a banana, it becomes a banana smoothie. So when you get your once-in-a-lifetime shot at puffing, whether you use writing as an excuse or not, be cognizant of this rule. But then I learnt this a tad bit late.
In pursuit of fake machismo…
The next day, having apprenticed from Gichore, it was time to man up, so to speak. A friend comes over, and hey, two is company. I had already cleared my schedule, and I offered them a cigarette too. At this point, I should add, it was a female friend. A rookie too, who had never touched a cigarette prior. This was my chance to show-off, I think. I tell her about my little experiment, expecting an admonishing—nothing. Nada. Zilch. I say here, have some. I know, I know. I’m a lousy, effete guy.
We close the windows and doors, and switch off the lights. Why does this feel so illegal? It’s just smoking, right? Chivalry may be on its deathbed, but I jack it up with a bout of romance; I offer her the first cigarette. She lights up and lights and coughs like a rabid dog. I chuckle. I fear she might die but she waves my protests away in a pantomime of reluctance. She hands it to me. I admire the expression on her face, which is simultaneously vacant and self-righteous. She looks visibly happy. Her face seems to have grown softer, the cigarette seeming to dull life’s razor’s edge of unhappiness.
Here, watch the masters do it. Acting all macho, I bring the bewitching butt to my mouth, purse my lips. I pull in the smoke, and my lungs, raw and fresh, get reeled in, imagining black smoke. I get a little high, I feel irie, something strangely familiar. I go over my smoking paces—Inhale: fast, deep. Exhale: slow, smooth.
In the corner of my brain, I can hear a voice shout, you don’t have to do it! But I prefer listening to the devil on my shoulder. I want to throw it away, but I feel a sudden buzz, and I believe that feeling is better than an orgasm. I can feel the smoke tar my lungs, clinging together as cobwebs of dust do. Lumping together like a pack of Athenians gathering at The Pnyx Hill.
Finding community, or so I thought…
The crush I told I’m trying out smoking cringed and protested vehemently. I could see protesting smoke billowing from their ears. No matter. Are you okay, they said. You can talk to me, they added. Can I call a therapist, they muse. I wanted to say it’s just an experiment but where’s the fun in that? My indulgence running amok, I had given in to my vice. I can quit anytime I want, I tell myself. Just like that. Drop of a hat.
Smoking is an oxymoron. It’s a vice that unites. Well, for one thing, it is easily shareable. A good cigarette is like a bad cigarette—there is no bad cigarette. It’s sexy taking a puff from a neatly wrapped Embassy, and murking, “That’s the good stuff.” I love how my lungs give in, offering all the resistance of a decorative bead curtain. But I was zinging. Man. The ascension must not have felt this good. Heaven must not feel this good.
See, with a cigarette you’re never really alone. Someone is always watching. Another wants to discreetly ask for a puff. Another needs a lighter. For me, a novice who was fascinated by people’s vices, cigarettes represented a tightrope walk, teetering between the edge of madness and sanity. Not only that, it tasted good, especially just after a heavy meal, and especially the two or three that came immediately after it. But at first, it was not even the smoke, but the smell that irked me. Why can’t they just make scentless cigarettes? I wanted to look for the tobacco bastards, look them dead in the eye and blurt out the same question.
But was it really that good, or was I drowning in something else?
Chasing the wind, sorry, the cold…
Being a smart alec, with every puff, I got better, falling hard for the Nicotine rush, the bad-boy thrill, rendering my resistance moot. The small axe that cut down the big tree? Cigarettes also gave you a reason to step outside on little smoking adventures: If you were in a chinwag with a bloke in a loud bar, you’d motion your lighter, and blurt out, “I’m headed out for a smoke. Coming?” Then you got to go shiver outside together for ten minutes, bonding over your wanton disregard for your health and the cold. I missed that. Still do.
Let the record reflect, smoking is hard. You puff and puff and puff. And puff. You would have thought it would be easier for me because of how in ushago, Kakamega, we use mawe to cook. Wapi! How come it looks so cool in the movies?
Smoking then is just a tidy game of brinkmanship.
You’ve been warned…
Smoking in public is frowned upon in Kenya. It’s actually illegal in publicly undesignated spaces. Cigarette manufacturers have gone ahead to placate coffins and hideous medical conditions to put out this vice. Gruesome photographs of physical defects or diseases caused by smoking—mouth cancer, throat cancer, even impotence (a photo of a male crotch with the penis burned out). The shock-and-jock advertising slogans work like clickbait, graduating into the realm of internet cheat code. But Smokers remain undeterred.
In my palm is a pack of Dunhill cigarettes. What is the purpose of these warnings if not to egg me on? People love to feel rebellious. I certainly do. And I take it more as an err on the side of a challenge than a warning. You can’t tell me what to do. Much less what not to do. Reverse psychology?
Smoking is like an illicit affair, every time you think this is the last time, she comes back for more. Have you noticed how, paradoxically, despite the obvious warnings most cigarette smokers are quite oblivious? Step outside your local bar, or just stroll into the Smoking Zone, and you’ll spot them: a hazy huddle of smarter-than-thou-smokers, shooting down sacred cows. Who told you smoking kills? Every smoker will pull out that card about their grandfather (or grandmother!) who smoked till they were 99, and even then only died because they got hit by a car.
It’s a smokescreen—we love the idea of the Law, most of all for the black-and-white beauty of culpability and retribution. Freedom, but, without responsibility.
Baba’s original sin…
I grew up watching my father smoke Embassy cigs. I always thought that was for Diplomats, but he quit, rather non-diplomatically. 15 years now, he hasn’t touched a cig. And yet…this apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. What did the Englishman say about imitation being the biggest form of flattery? My first interaction with cigarettes was when I was a child. Say 10 years old. You too. Let me jog your memory—remember the rolling papers we used to smoke? Is it coming back to you now?
“Baba alisema tuvute sigara
Mama akasema tusivute sigara
Washa Sportsman vuruta!”
Look, I’m a disciple of Lombardian ethics and our code states that winning, at all costs, at any costs, is all that matters. And smoking a cigarette was the last feather in my hat, another star on my shoulder. Almost like a club. A smoker’s club. Trying to fit in, wanting not to fit in.
In the mafia, to be a made-man was to earn your stripes by killing a few people. Now, I want to be a made-man by not dying after a few puffs. Very lofty, but achievable. Do you want someone who has never smoked to be in the trenches with you? Mmh? In my mind, I was Tony Soprano in the flesh. Tony Soprano, in the span of a day, can go from a murder scene to a family dinner without an iota of remorse.
Today, my father would not want to see a cigarette butt near him. He quit after his mother (and my grandmother) died. Out of lung cancer. He’s going soft.
He was a smoker. A heavy smoker, a chain smoker, someone who bought cigarettes more than he had budgeted for. A dedicated smoker. A professional smoker. A smoking machine. His skin was ashy, his index and middle finger blackened from discarding cigarette butts. He was a smoker’s smoker—a smoking that had become less a habit, and more a defining characteristic. That’s when a cig, a smoke feels less like a casual comfort in a cold world and more like an abyss, a dark deception. That’s when you feel like high-fiving a Tobacco executive. On the face. With a chair. It’s the duality of smoking between the haves and have-nots, between the have-tos and have nots.
Given my reputation as a strident non-smoker, it was funny how quickly I took to cigarettes. Like a badly shot scene in Rocky, here I was, fighting my own Apollo Creed in the form of a cigarette. Suddenly, I had to think of ashtrays and matchsticks and cigarette packs to hide. I wanted them all. Sweet Menthol. Roasters. Rocket. Sportsman. Supermatch. If 50 Cent can walk around with 9 bullet holes, what is a mere puff? If Jesus has 3 holes, what is a mere cig? A lot.
Blame the advertiser’s gimmicks…
So what have I learned? Nah. I won’t do your job for you. But I’ll give you something else instead—I’ll tell you what I have not learnt: That the drugs you take, take you. There is no revelation in drugs—it just is. You aren’t any different if you take alcohol-free wine, ‘duvai’, nor any special if you take Crazy Cock whiskey, which the label claims has a potency of 40% but we all know it is… anyway, the point is, you decide what meaning you place on what you take. My father (you knew this was coming), whose, thankfully, smoking days are behind him, says in his fat little muffins of truisms, that there is no bad drug. It’s the people who use it who are bad. It’s people who abuse drugs. Don’t be abusive—whether to drugs or to people.
It’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: the kind of dilemma between letting a guilty guy walk free or an innocent person getting convicted? Not to say that he meant for it to be anything very deep. He’s not that manipulative. He was just saying. There’s no happenstance Zen, no plaintive caesura.
And then it all goes up in smoke…
It was clear where the cigarette’s sex appeal came from. When a grown man smoked a cigarette, he was indexing all those rugged Marlboro ads from the olden days. He was indexing Marlon Brando. Smoking was cool. But when you really know, you know. It isn’t.
It’s one thing to give up smoking, and another to become a former smoker.
I puff. I huff. Blow two rings in the air. I fail. I look at the cig—definitely not my shtick. I remember Gichore. And his two sons. I think of my own father. I stare at the Dunhill between my fingers. I put it out. It was always going downhill.